Monday, July 25, 2011

The Pink Hijab Generation

Robin Wright has written an article for The Wilson Quarterly titled The Pink Hijab. She presents the story of the women who helped set the stage for the political tumult of the current year and who are trying to live a life of increased personal and political freedom, yet stay within the construct of their heritage and their religion. Wright refers to these women as the “pink hijab generation.”

The term hijab has a detailed Muslim history that can be found here. It has come to mean, in most cases, a covering for the female that includes everything but the face and hands.

Wright chooses Dalia Ziada, a 29 year-old Egyptian women as her avatar.  Ziada’s sensitivity to her rights, or lack thereof, arose at the age of eight when she was forced to undergo a traditional (not religious) “genital mutilation” imposed on Egyptian women. She was determined to try to make sure no other women in her family had to suffer the same fate. A defining moment came at age 24 when she finally succeeded at convincing an uncle to spare a cousin that fate. This victory convinced Ziada that she might be able to accomplish other things.

“Ziada soon became a leading activist among the pink hijab generation, young women committed to their faith, firm in their femininity, and resolute about their rights. With three college classmates, she launched a campaign to educate women about genital mutilation and domestic violence. Then she moved on to human rights. And she ended up at Liberation Square.”

One of her first projects in the human rights area was to produce an Arabic translation of a pictorial document called The Montgomery Story. This told the story of the civil rights activities led by Martin Luther King in 1955, and it includes a lesson on nonviolent civil disobedience. Ziada’s translation was eventually distributed throughout the Middle East.

“’When I read this story, I learned that someone must take the risk for others to follow,’ Ziada told me. ‘I wanted to be the Martin Luther King of Egypt!’”

Her next big project was to organize what Wright describes as “the first human rights film festival in the Arab world.” This was not an easy task in Mubarak’s Egypt. Her second effort was surprisingly successful.

“In 2009, facing the same obstacles, Ziada managed to sneak in 20 movies for the second Cairo human rights film festival. To get around official obstacles, she provided the wrong schedule and imaginary venues. In a country with one of the region’s most autocratic regimes, Ziada showed films such as Orange Revolution, about the 2004 uprising in Ukraine, and, most daringly, four Egyptian films. One dramatized a well-known incident in which police used a broomstick to sodomize a young man who had intervened when his cousin refused to pay the police a bribe. Another was a Romeo-and-Juliet tale about a young Christian boy who falls in love with a Muslim girl he can never marry. The most potent movie, however, was also the shortest. Please Spare Our Flowers is a one-minute film about female genital mutilation that shows ragged pinking shears slowly snipping off the tops of dozens of beautiful flowers, one by one by one, just as they’re blooming—each producing a piercing scream from an unseen girl child or baby.”

Last year Ziada began organizing civil disobedience workshops for Egyptians and activists from other countries.

“Among the trainees were two Tunisian bloggers who, only months later, played critical roles in flashing the story of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia across the Internet and beginning the Arab Spring.”

Wright described the political situation in Egypt in her 2008 book: Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. That was an excellent introduction to the various nations in the Middle East. Wright made it clear in that earlier publication that there were many men and women struggling to improve human rights and personal freedoms. Ziada was not alone. Wright opens her section on Egypt by quoting the anthropologist, Margaret Mead

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

How true!

How has traditional women’s dress fared across this period of political upheaval? How does Ziada dress?

“In public, she wears hijab coverings in bright florals, rich patterns, or fake designer prints; she changes her scarf daily. She is an observant Muslim, so not a wisp of hair shows. Judging from her eyebrows, her hair must be dark brown.”

“’Hijab is part of my life,’ she told me. ‘I would feel naked without it.’ She often jokes, with a robust laugh at herself, that her scarves are the most interesting part of her wardrobe. Yet her religious commitment defines her life.”

What about others who wish to maintain their religious and traditional ways while still demonstrating that they are individuals with rights and personalities?

“As the pink hijab generation gradually chisels away at centuries of restrictions, the young women are also redefining what it means to wear hijab—as a declaration of activist intent rather than a symbol of being sequestered. The change is visible in virtually every Muslim country. The young are shedding black and gray garb for clothing more colorful and even shape-revealing, albeit still modest. Pink is the most popular hue. Women in their teens, twenties, and thirties also flavor their faith with shades of pastel blue, bright yellow, and rustic orange, occasionally trimmed with sparkles, tassels, or even feathers. Hijab stores from Gaza to Jakarta now carry everything from long denim dresses with rhinestone designs to frilly frocks with matching scarves. Hijab Fashion, an Egyptian monthly magazine, was launched in 2004 for the pink hijab generation. It has nothing to do with religiosity. But it is also not just about fashion or vanity.”

Wright also provides some interesting and encouraging data on educational attainments of women in Muslim countries.

“A 2008 Gallup poll not only found that literacy is the rule rather than the exception among Muslim women, but that they are a growing proportion of university students even in countries with strong religious sentiment. In Iran, 52 percent of women told Gallup they had at least some postsecondary education, while in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon about one-third did. Surprisingly, Gallup also reported that more women had postsecondary educations in Pakistan (13 percent) and Morocco (eight percent) than in Brazil (four percent).”

The political future in Egypt is anything but certain. One can only hope that the political and personal liberties that Ziada and others have struggled for are ultimately attained.

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